Grid Complexities and the Race for Energy Storage

Emerson's Douglas Morris


Author: Douglas Morris

Apple just announced that they plan to construct a 200MW solar project in China to help the company meet its goals for carbon neutrality. One of the concerns, though, is whether or not the local transmission & distribution grid system can accommodate this renewable generation. It’s a concern because there have been numerous solar installations in China that are idled because of grid limitations.

As a matter of fact, this summer the Chinese government released data indicating that about 9 percent of existing solar installations were offline for the first half of the year because of constraints. I bring this up to illustrate that building renewable generation is the easy part of the supply chain, dealing with it on the grid is where the complexity arises.

It’s the general mission of commercial power generators to supply reliable and stable power to its customers; however, the increasing number of renewable sources can make this a challenge. Many have discussed how the uneven supply of renewables results in traditional fossil plants cycling to smooth load which causes some design and operational issues. Something else to consider, though, is the race afoot to develop technologies for energy storage/grid reliability that can provide some relief for fossil plants and improve overall grid stability.

In the United States, there are a few drivers accelerating this need for technology with the first being the fast growth of rooftop solar and distributed generation facilities. Next is a regulatory push, like renewable power mandates by states and the recently announced Clean Power Plan (CPP) which has a goal of 28 percent renewable generation for the country by 2030. Thirdly, the existing grid infrastructure does not currently have the flexibility to move power easily from one interconnect to another (trillions of dollars are required to debottleneck and provide the requisite flexibility).

You’ve heard of Tesla, but have you ever heard of EOS Energy Storage, JuiceBox Energy, ICE Storage, or Sonnenbatterie? They are just a few of the players in the energy storage space. Pumped storage has been around for a while and will find opportunity, but it’s battery and thermal storage that are getting more attention these days. The companies I listed have bankable contracts with utilities and help to provide power smoothing to balance renewables. Although not an energy storage technology, reciprocating engines that burn natural gas are gaining traction too because of their ability to come online quickly (in less than 10 minutes) while also providing good voltage support. This flexibility, combined with cheap fuel, make using these engines very attractive. Rubart Station in Kansas is a good example of this technology.

So where does this race end? It’s always hard to predict the future, but the winner will have the ability to scale, must be easily maintainable, and must be able to move down the cost curve to provide competitive power options ($/MW). It’s fun to watch and these technologies will likely be prevalent well before any major revamps to the national grid system come to fruition.

Posted Friday, October 23rd, 2015 under Energy, Power.

3 comments

  1. Doug,

    Former Emerson Employee (both PSS, but mostly PWS), but now work for major Solar Co as the product engineer for residential and commercial monitoring and electrical balance of systems. I agree with your post, and can offer so many other problems we’re not solving:

    1) No one considers the warranty costs of the power electronics. They fail. No one estimates replacement costs in the ROI in these systems. Most of the inverter offerings are junk. Now electronics have to go on the roof, on all the modules. Harder to get too with more points of failure.
    2) Rapid Shutdown and storage requirements are going to increase system costs (module costs are already negligible). Storage is completely misunderstood by the public. The purpose is to integrate them further into the grid, not to help them defect. Elon the messiah is omitting this key detail in his 2+ year powerwall pre-orders. I expect backlash.
    3) Scalability, as you mention just doesn’t make sense for anything under large commercial. Small solar is more disruptive to the grid’s functionality than it is a “disruptive” to the industry. A 300MW utility system = 60,000 roofs, x5 labor, x1 inverter (or x20 Microinverters), x1 monitor, x20 racking, expensive grid VAR control enhancements, ect, ect.
    4) Tech companies are all marketing and zero integrity. The engineering is hackish and management doesn’t understand engineering beyond creating cheap consumer electronics with a 2-3 year lifespan. They aren’t building capital goods and don’t understand the grid integration or the energy industry, and often applicable UL, NEC codes.

    But here’s my concern. Where’s the friggin’ leadership? The companies that know how to do “it” aren’t stepping up and leading (these problems aren’t even challenging). When are companies like Emerson going to:

    1) Make a product that’s a fit for the application (Ovation is more DCS, and less SCADA).
    2) Start calling BS on the crazy policies (Net Metering?). These are hurting solar more than helping, by pushing unsustainable model. I expect more backlash.
    3) Layout the ground work on how to deliver this stuff: Fair grid policy, scalable PV / Wind plants, limited storage (people overestimate the need for storage) for smoothing/peak-shaving/transitioning to back-up gen, and GE J920s?

  2. Clint, Thanks for sharing your insights, opinions and questions. I’ve shared them with Doug to make sure he sees them.

  3. Thanks for listening to crazy ramblings. I’ll have to ask that my comments be removed, as I don’t want to be the most unpopular guy in Round Rock.

    I like my old Co Emerson, and am considering going back to work for them, but remain unconvinced they’re headed in the right direction.

    More questions:

    Spinning-off Network Power and your on-site power generation businesses? …To double-down on Process Management.??? Why? You’re getting rid of the segments with the best positions for future growth to focus on controls for played-out conventional energy stuff? …Why not re-brand those divisions as Emerson Distributed Power and lever your experience there to develop more visible grid-level solutions to integrate alternative energy?

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